By Shambhavi Sharma
The gender studies group organised the first conference for this semester on sexual violence in conflict areas. The speakers were Babloo Loitongbam and Uma Chakravarti who discussed the oppressive and violent military rule in conflict areas in India – North East and Jammu and Kashmir.
Babloo Loitongbam and Uma Chakravarti discussed the oppressive and violent military rule in conflict areas in India – North East and Jammu and Kashmir. Babloo Loitongbam is a human rights activist who founded the Human Rights Alert organisation in Manipur after graduating from the Campus Law Centre in Delhi University. The organisation’s work is mainly concerned with getting justice for the widows of victims and survivors themselves from the Indian Army in Manipur, which has for decades now perpetrated a horrifyingly violent rule in the North East, mandated by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Babloo Loitongbam started by briefly outlining the history of the region. He emphasised that since colonial times, the north east has been seen as an area of conflict (with the tribals protesting British expansion in the area on every step). At independence the question of statehood on the basis of ethnic identities in the region came up. This led to armed conflict between the government and the citizens, eventually culminating in the Armed Forces Special Forces Act(AFSPA) being applied in the region. The AFSPA has given immense powers to the military in the region and according to Loitongbam it has led to the reinforcement of patriarchy and masculinity in their most violent manifestation through militarization. Under the AFSPA army officials have been able to rape and kill innocent civilians with impunity as filing an FIR and going through with legal proceedings is almost impossible for people living in the region given the situation of conflict. The history of sexual violence perpetrated against women by army officials in the region is a long one. Loitongbam discussed the 2004 rape case of Manorama at length and pointed out that unlike the earlier decades, by 2004 the region had an established civil administration, police and intelligence networks. Despite these developments, in 2004, Thangjam manorama was picked up by a unit of the Assam Rifles on the allegation that she was a part of an organisation called the People’s Liberation Army (which was supposedly working against the Indian state). One of the most shocking aspects of the Manorama case was the sheer brutality and gratuitous violence that accompanied it. Manorama was picked up by the army officials in the middle of the night and in the morning her body was found in a field, ridden with bullets and semen marks were revealed on her clothes through further investigation obviously indicating rape on the part of the perpetrators. The degree of brutality of this particular incident led to the mothers protest in Manipur, where a group of mothers stripped and dared the Indian Army to come and rape them. One of the consequences of this protest was the instatement of a Commission of Enquiry by the Manipur government. Loitongbam also highlighted the presence of mechanisms and institutions like the NHRC which were not available to the people before. In 2012, the NHRC stated that Manorama case constituted a human rights violation and recommended a compensation worth Rs. 10 lakhs to the family of Thangjam Manorama. However, the recommendations weren’t carried out as the Defence ministry called for a stay order in the Supreme Court. Loitongbam discussed another trajectory of the history of AFSPA through a reference to the 1990s when its constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court. Incidentally, and rather ironically, Justice Verma was a part of the bench that gave this judgement while in 2013 the Justice Verma committee gave recommendations against AFSPA. Another path which the protestors of AFSPA had taken in the 1980s-90s was that of taking recourse to international agencies and mechanisms. North Eastern students in DU and JNU approached the United Nations which took the protestors’ side and described the AFSPA as being in violation of various human rights, for eg. Right Against Torture, Right to a Fair Trial etc. August 1997 saw the final hearing on AFSPA going in favour of the state as the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality. Loitongbam, in his concluding remarks very accurately described the situation of women’s rights in the country by emphasizing regional differences in the access to these rights across India.
picture by Debayudh Chatterjee
Uma Chakravarti focussed on AFSPA in another conflict area in India i.e. the state of Jammu and Kashmir. She began by clarifying the common misinterpretation of AFSPA and stated that there is nothing in the act which actually indemnifies rape although Section 4 does mandate the Army to carry out search, seizures etc. In this clarification she also highlighted the very important distinction between immunity and impunity under law. In most instances of the rape of a woman by and army official, when the case goes to trial several processes work together to hinder the access of the survivor to a fair trial and justice. Often, the case goes to an army court which makes the process even more difficult due to language barriers and lack of proper representation for the woman. Moreover, the process of a trial even works as a process of the revictimization of the woman in most cases. Thus, such proceedings actually end up empowering the perpetrator of the crime. Chakravarti pointed out that although in cases of the rape of women by army officials there are two legal processes available – civil court and army court, the cases mostly go to an army court. She also blamed the NHRC for trying to do away with cases through monetary compensation and for not considering all the cases it is presented with despite the evidence of administrative corruption that accompanies such cases. Discussing the continuum of sexual violence against women in society, Chakravarti highlighted that such violence beings in the house, grants impunity in the personal sphere which translates into impunity for crimes against women in the society. Thus, she says, we should not and can not ignore instances of sexual violence against women in far off regions of the country as everything does affect us. In fact such ignorance was an issue with the women’s movement in India, which for a long time ignored the plight of women in North East, Jammu and Kashmir and Dalit women for the sake of maintaining the sanctity of the Indian nation state as addressing these issues would also involve questioning the state. She discussed several cases in the Jammu and Kashmir where the army committed violations with impunity, such as the Kunan Poshpora case and the Shopian rape and murder case.
Picture by Shreya Gupta
At this point in the discussion, another important issue was raised, that of lack of compensation to widows in conflict areas as the victims are often labelled as terrorists. Moreover, compensation is available only to women over 40 years of age. Loitongbam also highlighted the practice of collective mourning which widows and survivors have been undertaking in the North East and how this coming together of the aggrieved led to collection of information about 1528 cases of extrajudicial killings in the region. In 2012 the Supreme court considered the petition about these 1528 cases and called for the investigation of 6 of these cases. Ultimately the Supreme Court gave out a judgement confirming these 6 cases as fake encounters. The concluding remarks referred to the Indian state’s appreciation of the ‘good work’ done by the Army in these conflict regions, applauding the killings of so called terrorists and militants by the Army as a strong factor which has perpetuated the military violence in such regions since it incentivizes a higher rate of killing of ‘terrorists’ for the Army. This was followed by the screening of a small documentary film, called ‘Claiming Justice’ based on the fake encounters in Manipur and the experiences of widows in the state. In the end, a short question-answer session raised some very important points about the nature of brutality of the violence perpetrated by the Army and the sexual violence that is inflicted upon men in conflict areas. It is also important to note the non-physically violent manifestations of a continuous army presence in conflict regions. According to Loitongbam, surveys have shown that the first cause of death in conflict areas is stress, obviously caused by living in an environment of fear and violence constantly for years, even decades. In her concluding remarks, Uma Chakravarti commented on how the whole debate about sexual violence against women has been reduced to notions of honour and shame which has caused women to stay silent as they don’t expect justice upon reporting the crime.